Kelly Gonsalves is a sex educator, relationship coach, and journalist. She received her journalism degree from Northwestern University, and her writings on sex, relationships, identity, and wellness have appeared at The Cut, Vice, Teen Vogue, Cosmopolitan, and elsewhere.
We've known for a while that social media use is linked to symptoms of depression and loneliness, primarily by causing FOMO-related anxiety (i.e., fear of missing out on experiences with your friends, or at least knowing what everybody's up to) or by making us constantly compare our lives and bodies to those of random internet people.
Now, a new study from the University of Pennsylvania has finally confirmed what we've all probably known was true all along somewhere deep down: that excessive time spent on Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat really does cause depression and loneliness.
That causal link is important because such a definitive finding has actually been quite elusive. Most previous research has only been able to show a correlation between time spent on social media sites and these negative mental health consequences, but there's always been an asterisk on the results: What if lonely, depressed people are simply more likely to use social media more? But this latest study finally puts the nail in the coffin.
Researchers monitored 143 people's daily social media use for a week, as well as their levels of a range of mental health factors like depression and loneliness. Then the researchers split them into two separate groups for the following three weeks. One group could use Facebook, Instagram, and Snapchat for only 10 minutes each per day (for a total of 30 minutes spent on social media daily); the other group was free to use the platforms as much as they wanted. They all continued tracking the same mental health factors during the three weeks as well.
The results were crystal clear: People showed a substantial decline in depression and loneliness after they'd cut back on their social media use.
"Here's the bottom line," said Melissa G. Hunt, Ph.D., a lead psychologist at UPenn who led the study, in a news release. "Using less social media than you normally would leads to significant decreases in both depression and loneliness. These effects are particularly pronounced for folks who were more depressed when they came into the study."
Dr. Hunt stressed that the point isn't to quit cold turkey—it's simply an unrealistic goal that might just make you feel worse for not being able to accomplish. But the study authors concluded that limiting social media use to about 30 minutes per day may lead to significantly better well-being.
How to make the change:
Listen, we know it's no walk in the park to stay off social media. Those quick hits of dopamine we get from watching our likes go up are hard to quit, even amid evidence that it's making us miserable in the bigger picture. That's why mbg has been exploring ways to develop a more mindful relationship with social media for years, and our brilliant collective of health professionals and thought leaders have developed a long list of totally realistic, accessible ways to start taking steps toward this goal.
Here are some of the most helpful, creative ideas they've cooked up for us over the past few months to help you create healthier social media habits:
Turn your social media temptation into a creative temple.
"Get a box. It can be really simple. A shoe box works, but it's fun to get like a really beautiful wooden box or a plain box that you collage or paint or something. Make it a temple. Not a temple for the phone but a temple for your spirit, which will have a lighter load upon using the phone box. You decide how long you'd like to not look at your phone. ... Put the phone in the phone box. Now go do something: work, write, walk, all of the above. Whatever makes you feel alive." —Marlee Grace, artist and author
Unfollow, unfollow, unfollow.
"Ask yourself: Who in your feed is making you feel awful? Are you following ego-driven people who constantly post body shots that make you feel bad about yours? Are you following travel accounts that only post photos of destinations you could never afford? Are you following five newly coupled ex-boyfriends? The people you follow should motivate, inspire, and entertain you—not make you feel like your life is less-than. Let go of people who don't contribute to your overall happiness, and your Insta-related stress levels will drop immediately." —Carley Knobloch, TV personality and lifestyle blogger
Make it an excuse to embrace the joys of paper.
"Once upon a time, we doodled in our notebooks. Now, even Moleskine has transformed to meet the demands of the digital age. Make your grocery or to-do list on a piece of paper (and enjoy that twinge of satisfaction when you cross off an item). Investing in a month-by-month planner to help keep track of commitments and appointments will also lessen dependence on your smartphone calendar." —Alison Stone, LCSW, psychotherapist
Make it TV.
"I suggest having one or two finite windows a day when you check in—just like you might let yourself watch one or two episodes of your favorite TV show after dinner, then switch it off and be done with it until next time. It's there, and it's fun, but once you click the off button on the remote, your brain instantly moves on to the next moment." —Melissa Ambrosini, best-selling author and self-love teacher
Don't engage with social media first thing in the morning.
"When waking up, while it may feel natural to reach for your phone first, don't let it be the first thing you do. The emails, social media updates, and posts can wait. Start the first hour or two of your day with healthier habits like enjoying some tea, meditating, and/or journaling. Give yourself time to connect with yourself before connecting to social media." —Britt Martin, holistic nutritionist and yoga instructor
Transform social media time into a time for gratitude and affirmations.
"When you find yourself checking likes (we all do this!), crowd out this behavior by initiating gratitude to someone else on social media. Do more than double click for a heart. Write them a note publicly, and again, really consider how powerful your words are. Many will be affected by these acts of authentically liking other people." —Sadie Lincoln, founder of barre3